Reviews You Can Rely On

Best Running Hydration Pack for Men of 2021

Fabric, features, and design come together offering excellent function...
Photo: Jeff Colt
Tuesday July 20, 2021
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We've tested over 20 unique running hydration packs in the past 6 years, with our top 12 in this 2021 review. We searched for the ones that can carry essentials comfortably with easy access to what you need while running. In this review, we took both new and veteran packs out and subjected them to months of meticulous, head-to-head testing. Comfort, features, hydration systems, storage options, and the volume to weight ratio of each pack are key elements as to what we think makes the ultimate running pack. From hot weather jaunts to ultramarathon racing, we've compiled all of our data and experience to help you craft an informed choice.

Related: Best Hydration Pack of 2021

Top 12 Product Ratings

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Awards Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award Top Pick Award   
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$125.96 at Backcountry$149.00 at Amazon
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Overall Score Sort Icon
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77
75
Star Rating
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Pros Amazing pockets in arm's reach, carries a lot of gearMinimalist, lightweight, accessible pocketsComfortable, great fit, tons of easily reachable pockets, versatileHighly versatile, comfortable, durable, waterproofLightweight, comfortable, breathable
Cons Some stiff materials on the chest, pole carry is hard to execute while movingDoesn't carry heavy items well, some unwanted stretchExpensive, must buy hydration bladder separatelyHard to insert soft flasks, limited accessible pockets, no hydration system includedPole storage is obtrusive, tight around the neck
Bottom Line A comfortable and capable choice for big mileage when gear accessibility is mission-criticalThe best race vest on the market with form fitting stretch so it can store more gear comfortablyA top-notch running pack, with excellent pockets and a comfortable fitBuilt for any rugged activity in the mountains but the hydration system needs some workAn excellent running pack for those looking to go light and fast
Rating Categories Nathan Pinnacle 12L Salomon S/Lab Sense... Salomon ADV Skin 12... Black Diamond Dista... Ultimate Direction...
Comfort (30%)
8.0
8.0
9.0
9.0
7.0
Features (25%)
9.0
8.0
8.0
8.0
7.0
Hydration System (15%)
8.0
9.0
8.0
5.0
7.0
Volume To Weight Ratio (15%)
8.0
9.0
8.0
8.0
10.0
Pockets (15%)
10.0
9.0
9.0
7.0
7.0
Specs Nathan Pinnacle 12L Salomon S/Lab Sense... Salomon ADV Skin 12... Black Diamond Dista... Ultimate Direction...
Weight (with included hydration vessels) 13.6 oz 7.9 oz 13.4 oz 14.2 oz (pack only, no bottles/bladder included) 9.3 oz
Carrying Capacity 12L 8L 12L 15L 11L
Included Liquid Capacity 1.6L 1L 1L 1L 1L
OGL Volume to Weight Ratio (bigger is better!) 0.88 1.01 0.90 1.06 1.20
External Storage? Yes, kangaroo pockets Yes, back pouch pocket Yes, kangaroo pockets Yes, paracord Yes, back pouch pocket
Type of Water Storage 1.6L hourglass reservoir Two 500mL bottles Two 500 mL soft flasks (included), plus reservoir sleeve (reservoir not included) Not included Two 500 mL soft flasks (included)
Pole Holders? Yes Add on Yes Yes Yes


Best Overall Running Hydration Pack for Men


Nathan Pinnacle 12L


86
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Comfort 8
  • Features 9
  • Hydration System 8
  • Volume to Weight Ratio 8
  • Pockets 10
Weight: 13.7 oz | Included Liquid Capacity: 1.6 liters
Great comfort and fit
Great access to pockets while running
Versatile
Contours to body
Hydration soft flasks sold separately
Pricey

The Nathan Pinnacle 12 is unmatched in the amount of accessible gear it can carry. For this reason, amongst others, it is the best pack we tested. The field of hydration packs for running is only getting stronger, and this pack still stood out amongst stiff competition. Twelve pockets and a hydration sleeve for a bladder provide extensive storage options for this vest, and the compatibility with soft flasks adds versatility for the user. The number of pockets is one thing, but the side-accessed kangaroo pockets are immense, and one of them is also accessible from the back of the pack for more rapid access at aid stations or when you're taking a break.

While this vest is pricy and made of lightweight, highly stretchable fabric, we still see value in a 12-liter vest that allows a runner to chug along without having to stop to access some of the main storage pockets across the back of the pack. At this point in time, no vest has a great trekking pole solution because poles are 15" long when collapsed, and most vests are barely this size. With all the movement of running, poles are bound to be a point of high friction if stored in any manner. If you store trekking poles in the vertical kangaroo pocket as intended, you can technically draw them from the pack while moving through the flank access to this pocket, but it's not a well-tuned system. We don't count it against any vest that you have to take it off to store the poles because the few vests with front storage options were also quite uncomfortable. We had very few slights to throw at the Pinnacle 12 — sure, it is heavier than some other vests, and the sternum straps are a bit stiffer, but we know this vest is reliable, and the user experience is refined to feel innate.

Read review: Nathan Pinnacle 12

Best Bang for the Buck


REI Swiftland Hydro


59
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Comfort 6
  • Features 6
  • Hydration System 6
  • Volume to Weight Ratio 4
  • Pockets 7
Weight: 13.7 oz | Included Liquid Capacity: 1.5 liters
Easy to use features
Adequate Storage
Versatile
Bluesign-sourced material
Great adjustability
Straps can loosen
No zippered pockets

The REI Swiftland Hydro redefines the standard of introductory running vests. At an affordable price point, it's easy to use, highly adjustable, and capable of carrying a decent load. Our favorite things about this vest are the intuitive design; at no point do you need to contort your body or undergo an unnatural movement in order to tighten or adjust a strap on the vest. We love that the amount of gear storage permits you to get out for full-day adventures with the necessary gear and some additional layers or medical supplies if need be. Compatibility with both a hydration bladder or soft flasks (not included) add to the versatility of this do-it-all vest.

For anyone considering trying out a hydration pack for running, but also considering using it for biking, hiking, rafting trips, or staying hydrated at festivals, look no further. With 5 liters of usable storage between a main blitz pocket, an external quick-stow pocket, and front chest pockets, you can bring most anything you need with you. Vests as feature-rich as this one normally don't have such accommodating fits, as they are designed for race-oriented ultrarunners. The Swiftland Hydro is different. It has many high-end functional features for a fraction of the price.

Read review: REI Swiftland Hydro

Best for Going the Distance


Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set


85
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Comfort 9
  • Features 8
  • Hydration System 8
  • Volume to Weight Ratio 8
  • Pockets 9
Weight: 11.9 oz | Included Liquid Capacity: 1 liter
Great comfort and fit
Loads of accessible pockets
Versatile
Contours to the body
Hydration bladder sold separately
Pricey

The Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set still stands among the best hydration vests we've ever tested. Not only does it perform excellently in all scenarios, but it can store a phenomenal amount of gear and strike a perfect balance so that every stride remains fluid. As you can imagine, comfort is of the utmost importance when running, and having a vest that can ride just as comfortably full as empty is a huge bonus. The innovative pocket design further seals the deal — we love the kangaroo pouches, a feature pioneered by this model and emulated by most of the other award-winning vests we tested. What's more, the mesh pockets are see-through enough to inform both the runner and crew what is in each area during races. Testers also thought the soft flask hydration system was the most versatile and comfortable system reviewed, and a heat protective sleeve (if you purchase a bladder separately) rounds out the feature set allowing you to add Salomon's proprietary 1.5-liter bladder. The pack can also house any hydration bladder if you remove the thermal sleeve.

Truthfully, our top three vests had us splitting hairs, trying to find the slight advantages of one over the other. You can't go wrong with any of them. If you prefer setting your fit preferences before a big outing and having fewer friction points during your run, we are certain you will like this vest most. If you like the ability to adjust your vest fit on the move as you burn through calories and drink down your water, then the Nathan Pinnacle will likely suit your preferences. Nonetheless, we always say comfort is king, and this vest scored as high as any other in the comfort category, so beginner or expert, we're confident you'll love this product.

Read review: Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set

Best for Racing


Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 8 Set


85
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Comfort 8
  • Features 8
  • Hydration System 9
  • Volume to Weight Ratio 9
  • Pockets 9
Weight: 7.9 oz. | Included Liquid Capacity: 1 liter
Feather light
Excellent comfort
Huge storage capacity
Expansive pockets
Expensive
Less durable
Trekking pole carry not included

The S/Lab Sense Ultra 8 from Salomon is an incredible vest. It is free of gadgets and gimmicks, just a pure, simplified, refined speed machine. Every element of this vest has intention, and it's no surprise that some of the world's best ultrarunners helped think up this design and prefer to run in this vest. One design element prevails across all aspects, and that is the specified stretch layout. Some pockets stretch more than others to help secure the load and provide apt suspension while bounding down the trail. Other pockets don't stretch as much cause they are designed to carry heavier gear like soft flasks or a hydration bladder if that is your fancy.

The outcome here is a form-fit, fast, functional tool that is certain to make any runner more efficient on the trail. If blazing through aid stations or upping the bar on the latest FKT is what you jive with, look no further and buy this vest. While our race kit worked seamlessly with the Sense Ultra 8, we went on some adventures with more conventional items such as a point-and-shoot camera and an apple. These dense items seemingly defied the form-fit stretch pockets and moved around at their own will. Something to consider, how will you be using this tool? Also, we do recommend trying on two different sizes and checking for fit. As the success of this vest is built on stretch, it would be wise to size down if you are right on the brink. Because once this vest stretches too much, it will lose a lot of the performance comfort that makes it so sexy to begin with.

Read review: Salomon Sense Ultra 8

Compare Products

select up to 5 products to compare
Score Product Price Our Take
86
$200
Editors' Choice Award
For a pack that has 12L of storage space, we are amazed at how accessible the pockets are
85
$180
Top Pick Award
A simple elegant vest that triangulates in on form, function, and fast
85
$165
Top Pick Award
A comfortable fit and exceptional pockets make this among our favorite packs on the market
77
$150
Among the most capable packs we've tested but very difficult to insert soft flasks
75
$170
A great hydration vest for running, especially for the gram-counting speed freaks
68
$150
The features and awesome hydration system make this vest a joy to use
67
$120
The lightest vest we've tested surprised us with three accessible pockets across the back that fit nearly everything we wanted
63
$155
Complicated pockets and no included hydration system give us some reservations but there are some great features
59
$90
Best Buy Award
An affordable and highly capable pack with user-friendly features
54
$90
Great for distances upwards of a marathon and any running environment where visibility is key
51
$85
An affordable running pack that won't break the bank or your back
40
$24
Functionally carries water and gear but with no front access pockets and some points of discomfort, this is not our favorite

Hydration packs for running are tools designed to make carrying...
Hydration packs for running are tools designed to make carrying water, food, and layers easier.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Why You Should Trust Us


We have a bomber team of endurance athletes testing these packs. With bulging muscular calves and thighs, Jeff Colt, Andy Wellman, and Brian Martin make up our team of ultra-trail runners. Among them all, they have put in some serious time, chugging away on races that range from 10 to 100 miles. Jeff competes internationally in trail races from 50km to 100miles and trains locally in Colorado's Elk Mountains. Andy is a seasoned ultra-runner exploring the mountains of Colorado and coastal regions of Oregon by trail. And Brian just so happens to be a Search and Rescue technician that enjoys spending long days on the trail all over the USA. They make a cohesive team that covers all the review bases.

To test a hydration pack for running, we — you guessed it — spent a lot of time running. In addition to our daily trail runs through the Elk Mountains, Sierra Nevada, or variable landscapes of Utah, we took these packs on some ultras, including the Jemez Mountain 50 (NM), the Bighorn 100 (WY), and the IMTUF 100 (ID) mile race. Bottom line, you couldn't find a better team to have put these hydration packs through the paces, pushing their limits so you can find the best match for your specific needs.

Related: How We Tested Hydration Packs For Runnings

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Analysis and Test Results


We wanted to give each hydration pack for running a fair trial, so we spent months upon months doing a lot of running. We took these packs everywhere we went, from the high alpine to our local trails and then to the farmer's market. We wanted to know how their storage capabilities compared in terms of both size and design. We paid attention to how user-friendly the hydration systems are, all the while comparing their overall comfort, fit, and weight. We have allotted a weighted ranking to each metric, but we urge you to review the scores and decide for yourself which categories are most important to you.

Related: Buying Advice for Hydration Packs For Runnings

No rest, gotta test! Taking the higher volume packs higher up and...
No rest, gotta test! Taking the higher volume packs higher up and further out to get a real feel.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Value


The products in this review vary significantly in cost. We sought out a variety of packs that spread across the spectrum of affordability. We looked for a couple packs that were entry-level, a couple minimalist race vests, some premium race vests, some hydration packs designed for fastpacking, and two or three other packs that rounded out the field. We looked for a wide range of materials and designs and then chose the final contenders we wanted to take to the trails for testing. There are cost discrepancies, but we worked hard to identify competitive products that could break personal bests without busting the bank.

The more affordable vests generally have fewer bells and whistles: these are user-friendly, simple packs to help you drink water on the go. The more expensive packs have more specialized materials, more storage options, and designs that target running comfort and convenience. "Value," as far as we're concerned, is a function of price as it relates to performance. A pack may be cheap and crappy, or it may be a great deal that functions nearly as well as the most expensive pack. Similarly, an expensive pack does not necessarily indicate a great one. That said, we generally found that more expensive packs in this review do have more to offer and are constructed of higher-end materials that better suit and reflect the natural movements of running.


For example, the REI Swiftland Hydro is a great value for the price, offering a snug, comfortable fit and ample storage for most outings in the mountains. You could certainly spend more money on a vest that performs at the same level without much benefit. The Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set is also a great value, with stellar comfort and the ability to seemingly never run out of storage space for food, equipment, or water. While the Swiftland isn't on the same level as the ADV Skin, they both represent great value for the right user. And, while the bottle carry isn't our favorite, the Raidlight Revolutiv 3L V2 is otherwise well-designed, absurdly light, and lands at a very decent middle-of-the-road price.

To properly test value, if a pack made a claim, we tried to test it...
To properly test value, if a pack made a claim, we tried to test it. Four season durability? No problem.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Comfort


Comfort is king. Learn it, love it, or lament out on the trails. The number-one most important metric to consider when picking a hydration pack for running is comfort. Thus, comfort is weighted more heavily than any other single attribute, and we think you'll understand why. Essentially, running is already uncomfortable, so why make it harder? If your pack is causing chafing, rubbing, or discomfort, you're less likely to use it and maybe even less likely to hit the trails for the long missions you've been scheming. Thus, we put in the miles ahead of time: things that feel annoying at mile two can easily be a dealbreaker by mile twenty.


The most comfortable contenders are the ones that use an elastic and stretchy material to hug the body or use stretch in conjunction with static adjustable straps. Packs constructed of inflexible material that merely used static webbing for adjustments didn't perform as well. While straps, especially on the sides, allow for greater adjustability, they also rub and chafe more. Additionally, packs that include shoulder adjustment straps tend to be more comfortable than those without because of the fine-tuned fit. The most comfortable models we tested are the ADV Skin 12 Set and the Black Diamond Distance 15, both larger packs that really honed in on suspension and effectively carrying gear. The Sense Ultra 8 also proved to be an extremely comfortable minimalist hydration pack for running.

By incorporating stretch material that hugs the ribcage in...
By incorporating stretch material that hugs the ribcage in conjunction with elastic cord, the fit remains snug even with 15 liters of gear in the pack.
Photo: Jeff Colt

The ADV Skin 12 exemplifies the necessary comfort level hydration packs for running should strive for. Much like the Sense Ultra 8, this vest feels as if it hugs the body so evenly that it's difficult to identify a place with more pressure or contact. However, the ADV Skin 12 features numerous points of adjustability, matching premium comfort with fit. Other packs tend to place more pressure through the shoulders or have difficulty distributing weight with heavier loads like hydration bladders. Even when we purposefully loaded the ADV Skin unevenly, it still distributed the weight remarkably well. Additionally, the included hydration system, two 500mL soft flasks, conform to the body, adding balance and preventing unwarranted bounce.

Finally, the material of the ADV Skin 12 is ultra-breathable. While items inside might get wet with a light rain shower, the breathability far outweighs the slight downsides. We never felt suffocated or drenched underneath this pack, a definite asset of this vest. Having all of these features together in one pack results in an ultra-comfortable design capable of taking you long distances in relative comfort.

The Salomon ADV Skin 12 is an amazingly comfortable running vest. We...
The Salomon ADV Skin 12 is an amazingly comfortable running vest. We found it to have the best suspension and its ultra-capable of hauling all the necessary food and equipment you would need for a day out.
Photo: Jeff Colt

The Distance 15 from Black Diamond surprised us, as its main compartment has a conventional backpack shape, yet it was efficient at moving in the mountains and limited unwanted bounce. To balance the large rear blitz pocket, Black Diamond incorporated wider shoulder straps and adjustable ribcage bungees that cross three times to offer a secure fit across more surface area. In this instance, the combination of a static material with flexible straps still provides plenty of support and enhances the vest's comfort.

Pocket location also contributes greatly to comfort. The Ultraspire Bryce has a number of different pockets on each wide broad shoulder strap, large compartment pockets on the back, and external storage. With so many pockets, the balance of the vest varies greatly depending on how it is packed. In contrast, the Raidlight Revolutiv 3L V2 has one large pocket on each very narrow shoulder strap, and three small pockets situated in a wrap around the lower back. As the hydration flasks in the sleeves on the shoulder straps emptied, the pack still maintained remarkable balance, attributed to well-designed seams and pockets located closer to the center of gravity of the runner (less bounce).

Other packs tended to highlight one or two tools and put the others on the back burner. The Vibrelli 2L, for instance, paid no attention to the lower chest strap, which passed directly over the diaphragm, limiting our ability to breathe while running in it. For some things, this may not be a big deal, but when it comes to comfort, you shouldn't be willing to compromise — especially if you have some long, hard objectives on your list of goals.

Nylon webbing used for the lower chest strap and the adjustable...
Nylon webbing used for the lower chest strap and the adjustable flank strap make the straps irritating against the ribs and challenging to get a comfortable fit. Some padding or a blend of softer materials against the body would improve the ride dramatically.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Features


The most interesting part of testing hydration packs for running boils down to features and design. Whether you want to compare the minimalist race vests with the maximalist fastpacking vests, or the entry-level vests with those designed by professional ultra legends, it's fascinating to put these vests side by side and work backward through the thought processes that went into their creation. The UltrAspire Bryce XT comes to mind because loading this vest up took some time in the morning, and then we'd hit the trail and have no idea where anything was in the seemingly endless maze of pockets. But get this, there are only ten pockets, less than in the Sense Ultra 8, which goes to show how the real estate each pocket takes up and its accessibility play a role in ease of use.


It's critical that hydration packs find the balance between a rich feature set and the functionality of those features. Having all of the bells and whistles is only great if they are useful to have on a pack and don't detract from the fairly simple goal: effectively carrying food, water, and gear while running.

Black Diamond has created a line of complementary items using the...
Black Diamond has created a line of complementary items using the Distance name. Here the Distance Carbon Z poles integrate into the Distance 15 pack pole sleeves.
Photo: Jeff Colt

In addition to examining the features of each product, we took an in-depth look at how these features help or hurt the overall functionality of the pack. Taking the Bryce XT as an example, the number of features provided could be far over what is needed for some trail running applications. Some runners might wonder about the helmet carry system; what's that about? Who needs to haul an ice axe on a run? For a few runners, these features are what speaks to them. Maybe they are eyeing Longs Peak early season when the frozen morning snow allows for faster travel, the helmet will protect against rockfall, and the ice axe will come in handy on the afternoon glissade down the softening snowfields. We worked to review more than option for each subcategory or interest that our community of trail runners shares. We tested the Black Diamond Distance 15 to understand how another pack carries gear and water for an overnight outing and ridge-top scrambles.

With a wide range of hydration packs for running available, we tried...
With a wide range of hydration packs for running available, we tried to cover all of the bases and have at least one other pack that could go head to head in testing based on volume, utility, features, weight, and affordability.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Other subcategories we considered are simple entry-level vests that have straightforward functions, minimalist race vests that are still highly capable but have streamlined features, and vests more geared at longer races while offering more features and better comfort than their minimalist counterparts. Additionally, we discovered some vests had standout features that separated them from the rest of the field and worked to compare them in more depth.

The High Beam is designed to have standout visibility, a key safety...
The High Beam is designed to have standout visibility, a key safety feature that makes this vest appealing. Other vests that come in a few different colors should offer one that is highly visible.
Photo: Jeff Colt

The Sense Ultra 8 hits the mark for minimalist race vests, with a sleek design that can be accessorized with additional features, such as a trekking pole quiver, based on need. Other vests incorporate features into the design of pockets, so there can be some cross-pollination between vests that have amazing pocket layouts and how they score for features. The Pinnacle 12 earned the highest score for features and for pockets, not a coincidence at all.

The Pinnacle 12 offers an additional side access point for the main...
The Pinnacle 12 offers an additional side access point for the main rear pockets, putting all of that gear in reach while running and making it easy to empty or resupply at aid stations.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Hydration System


The thesis statement of our entire review, these packs have been designed to carry water and incorporate a system that goes beyond a regular backpack to address the bounce, jostle, and bound of a runner's stride. Most every vest we reviewed includes at least one of the preferred hydration systems: soft flasks, hydration bladder, or hard bottles. If a vest didn't include a hydration system, we made sure to call it out and took a single point off their score. We have lots of soft flasks at our disposal, but for a runner buying their first hydration vest, we think it is fair to ask that companies include some container or specify their reasoning for not doing so. Regardless, if you are buying your first vest and it comes with a bladder, also referred to as a reservoir, consider buying two soft flasks as well for extra water storage and to try out a different system for preference.


Most of these models are adaptable to use either chest-mounted bottles/flasks or a back-mounted bladder and hose setup. There are pros and cons to each, which is why we advise trying out both options. However, for this entire review, we describe and rank the effectiveness of only the hydration system included with the purchase of each vest, rather than every conceivable method of rigging the pack. If a system wasn't included with the pack, we went with what we thought worked best. Take into account the ability to expand your water carrying capacity before making your final decision.

Drinking from these soft flasks is a joy, as they are perfectly...
Drinking from these soft flasks is a joy, as they are perfectly positioned. Getting the soft flasks into the vest however, is a joy kill.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Bladder & Hose

The bladder and hose hydration system is one that we are all familiar with and is almost synonymous with the brand CamelBak. Other competitors make bladders now, and many use a slide-lock opening instead of the classic circular screw cap. Bladders, also referred to as reservoirs, typically hold between 1.5 and 2 liters of water and are secured in a sleeve pocket of the pack positioned against your back. Most packs now feature some way of keeping the bladder upright using a snap, velcro, or a tab, and unless that system is really frustrating, we notice little difference between competing designs. A hose stretches from the bottom of the bladder over your shoulder and has a nozzle on the end for you to drink from. The advantages of this system are the large carrying capacity and the ease of drinking from a bite valve that can be brought up to your mouth, keeping your focus on the trail ahead.

The silver magnetic keeper makes stowing the VaporAir hydration hose...
The silver magnetic keeper makes stowing the VaporAir hydration hose quick and easy between sips. No need to look down and place it carefully, the magnets attract to bring the hose to its proper resting space easily.
Photo: Brian Martin

The disadvantages are that you can only have one liquid, and bladders usually don't work well with anything besides water as the hose is much harder to clean. Furthermore, they can be annoying and time-consuming to fill since they are on the inside of your backpack, and the tube, depending on how it mounts to your shoulder straps, can be annoying when it flaps around as you run. Some packs use a quick-release feature on the bladder so you don't have to worry about rerouting the tube when you go to fill up. Even with this, refilling bladders inevitably will slow you down in comparison to refilling soft flasks.

The REI Swiftland uses a full zipper across the top of the pack...
The REI Swiftland uses a full zipper across the top of the pack, making it easier to pull the bladder out to refill.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Some other nitpicking complaints we have about bladder systems are that the water in the hose is susceptible to heating up from the sun or freezing if it's frigid out. And, when you are carrying all of your water in one place, especially 2 liters, it sloshes around more fiercely. Despite the drawbacks, this is the most popular hydration system in a hydration pack for running.

The hourglass-shaped 1.6-liter reservoir prevents unwanted movement...
The hourglass-shaped 1.6-liter reservoir prevents unwanted movement. This is a big improvement from traditional rectangular or oval-shaped bladders.
Photo: Jeff Colt

The Nathan Pinnacle has one of our favorite hydration bladder systems, proving this setup is great when done right. It's lightweight, can be filled with one hand, and never leaked on us. The clever hourglass shape of the bladder worked well with the longer vest design and prevented most unwanted sloshing. Routing between fabric layers over the shoulder and under a loop provides comfortable hose management, and a magnetic clip keeps the hose stowed instead of flapping about. A small velcro tab at the top of the vest and the quick-release feature on the hose at the bottom of the bladder keep the bladder upright and easy to refill.

Most of the products we reviewed will accommodate a bladder, even if they don't come with one included (the one exception being the svelte Raidlight Revolutiv). If you're going to purchase a bladder separately, make sure that it is designed to be compatible with your pack.

Chest-Mounted Bottles

Mounting the hydration system on the chest is becoming increasingly common for running packs. Your liquids are stored in two bottles that are held by pockets, also referred to as hydration sleeves, on the chest attached to the shoulder straps. With two bottles, you can bring along water and an electrolyte mix, which can help you avoid bonking. With the bottles positioned on the chest, it is also easier to perceive how much fluid you have remaining. For racing, being able to quickly pop a bottle out of its sleeve and fill it up without taking the pack off is a significant advantage. Packs that incorporate front-mounted bottles into their design can strike a more balanced fit, as weight is more distributed across the runner's frame.

There are disadvantages to chest-mounted bottles. For one, now that sloshing water is front and center, and if the fit isn't right, it can be a lot more aggravating. Additionally, the hard plastic of bottles can irritate the ribcage over time. Hard bottles are still prone to sloshing but retain their shape, unlike chest-mounted soft flasks. The Ultimate Direction Marathon V2 High Beam features two small hard bottles.

While soft bottles may conform better to your body, hard bottles...
While soft bottles may conform better to your body, hard bottles don't change their shape and impact the fit of a vest.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Chest-Mounted Soft Flasks

The ADV Skin 12 Set uses chest-mounted soft-flasks as its primary hydration system, and Salomon really nails it. Akin to the hydration bladder design, Salomon has elastic loops that keep the bottles upright and prevent them from moving around excessively. Other packs employ a similar design, like the Raidlight Revolutiv, but none of them function as well as the Salomon support loops. As a result, the Revolutiv suffers from soft flasks that flop around like a boxing bag when partially full.

Another downside of utilizing soft flasks is the inevitable frustration of stuffing the bottles back into their pouches when full. We have yet to encounter a design where the bottles slip back in drama-free, but Salomon designs their soft flasks to be longer and thinner than most other brands, positioning them closer to the mouth and making them easier to get in and out of the hydration sleeve pockets. As mentioned above, another gripe with soft flasks is that you can spend time getting the fit of your vest just right, but as you drink your liquids, the soft flasks empty and contort, changing the fit of your vest and often causing small pain points.

Soft flasks come in many different shapes and sizes.
Soft flasks come in many different shapes and sizes.
Photo: Jeff Colt

If you want to add a high-performing Salomon Speed Soft Flask to another pack, you can purchase it separately.

Salomon selects the soft flask that will work best with each vest...
Salomon selects the soft flask that will work best with each vest. Here you can see the hardened bottom of the Speed flask that comes equipped with the Sense Ultra 8 next to a flat bottom flask.
Photo: Jeff Colt Jeff Colt

Volume to Weight Ratio


We wanted to assess a variety of packs in this review, from minimalist race vests to larger fastpacking bags. In order to compare 1.5L vests side by side with 15L packs, we developed our volume to weight ratio criterion. The best packs have a higher value over 1.0, while smaller and heavier packs will have a value below 1.0. The evolution of virtually all outdoor gear is to be lighter without sacrificing durability or functionality; weight is an important characteristic, which is why we believe that lighter is better, so long as the pack can still perform and carry the necessary equipment for the mission.


We weighed each model straight out of the box, with all the accessories and the hydration system that it came with, minus the water. We then took the measured weight and divided it by the volume of the vest's storage. Generally, the larger volume packs scored better (as having a larger denominator will greatly impact the score) and the packs made with high stretch materials often could carry more volume than advertised. As there isn't a great way for us to measure volume, we followed the measurements provided by each brand. In this right, the Volume to Weight ratio disfavored the Raidlight Revolutiv even though it is significantly lighter than every other pack and could seemingly fit just as much gear despite a listed volume of only 3 liters.

The gear and food for a 20 mile mission in the San Juan Mountains -...
The gear and food for a 20 mile mission in the San Juan Mountains - it all fit!
Photo: Jeff Colt

Regardless of this variable, many of these larger vests we tested are notably lightweight, while some of the smaller vests tested were included as price-point options and are built with heavier materials. It's worth noting that if a vest did not include a hydration system, we weighed it as is and automatically docked the score by one point.

While many hydration packs use the sides to reinforce suspension...
While many hydration packs use the sides to reinforce suspension, the Sense Ultra is a proper vest, with pockets wrapping around the ribcage and no clear start or end to the chest straps.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Looking at the two factors in our volume to weight ratio, each offers valuable insight. While storage capacity should help you narrow down what you are looking for depending on your primary use, weight is a critical attribute to consider within each segment of volume. As this category assesses a range of pack sizes, this score reflects packs that are able to carry gear while remaining very light. Often you will be wearing your pack for hours on end in an environment where speed and efficiency are necessary. If we look at the heaviest and lightest packs in this review, it becomes apparent which packs are built with weight-conscious materials and which are generally bulky. For example, the Nathan VaporAir 2.0 didn't offer any performance boost, extra storage, or comfort over the lightweight Sense Ultra 8 (7.9 oz), but it weighs about 6 ounces more. If we opt for the Sense Ultra and save those 6 ounces, we could bring along 6 ounces of cliff bars, which equates to about 680 calories, our typical intake for around 4 hours of trail running.

While the VaporAir 2.0 seems to have a pocket for everything, it...
While the VaporAir 2.0 seems to have a pocket for everything, it doesn't justify the significant added weight.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Beyond carrying water, hydration packs for running should carry the clothing, food, and equipment you need for a successful long run without disrupting your running stride. Adequate storage space is necessary to bring along what you need. This carrying capacity, paired with the weight of the vest, gives valuable insight into the quality of the construction, feel, and function of each pack. While this category still goes hand-in-hand with the one below, Pockets, it allows for a more objective assessment of a packs carrying capabilities given its size and weight, taking more of the packs intended design into play, be it short race or long fastpack.


The Sense Ultra 8 hits the mark for minimalist race vests, with a sleek design that can be accessorized with additional features based on need. Minimalist race vests we tested performed really well in the volume to weight ratio, as they are designed to be lightweight and highly capable. We took it upon ourselves to weigh all of the vests, but determining usable volume is a bit trickier, so we opted to go with the purported numbers that each brand provided.

Minimalist race vests are the Macgyvers of the bunch, needing to be...
Minimalist race vests are the Macgyvers of the bunch, needing to be fast and light, with functional features capable on long distances and fast transitions.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Our hope is that this criterion places vests that are designed to be smaller race-oriented packs on a level playing field with larger packs that are designed with more storage space. For example, on the two ends of the high-performance spectrum are the Distance 15 and the Sense Ultra 8 — these two models represent different audiences and intended uses within the product category of hydration packs for running. The Distance 15 is the heavy-hitting, any condition, multi-day juggernaut, while the Sense Ultra 8 is the light-on-its-feet woodland fairy of the group. They are both extremely efficient and lightweight for what they can pack along but have very different purposes. This criterion distinguishes the Distance 15 as remarkable, scoring very high, despite having a point automatically docked for not having included soft flasks. It also vindicates the highly capable Sense Ultra 8 as one of the category leaders, as it weighs half as much as the Distance 15 but still can haul some serious gear. This is important to keep in mind while reading each review and hopefully clarifies that a lower storage capacity doesn't make a pack worse. Consider what you need to bring with you on your runs and objectives before deciding bigger (or smaller) is better.

Introductory vests often score lower in volume to weight ratio...
Introductory vests often score lower in volume to weight ratio tests, as they prioritize easy to use materials over gram-counting microfabrics.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Pockets


Pockets as a category can be either straightforward, in the case of more traditional pack designs with isolated pockets, or more complex with modern vest designs that are a continuous landscape of pockets. For this reason, the pocket design on a pack is critical, as it impacts comfort, features, volume, and the hydration system options. We try to suss out the overall contributions of the pockets in the aforementioned sections, and in this category, we look at the number of pockets and the utility of each.


The liberal use of pockets may be the most notably different characteristic of a hydration pack for running as compared to a regular old hydration pack. Running vests are designed with many different pockets on the front of the pack, attached to the shoulder straps, and sitting on the chest or flanks, where they are within convenient reach of the runner at all times. The idea is that a runner should be able to grab whatever they need, whether it is water, food, cell phone, or salt tabs, while on the run and without needing to stop or remove the pack. The only pack that delivers this performance with 100% of its pockets accessible mid-stride is the Raidlight Revolutiv which has all three zippered pockets in comfortable reach. The Revolutiv is quite small though, so the contenders with our favorite pocket configurations are the Pinnacle 12 and both vests we tested from Salomon, the Sense Ultra 8 and the larger ADV Skin 12, which have tons of different options, all within reach, and all made out of expandable fabrics to hold different sized items.

All three zippered pockets on the Revolutiv are accessible with some...
All three zippered pockets on the Revolutiv are accessible with some ease. The rear zippered pocket is the only one large enough to fit a phone, but the pocket's position on the lower back is convenient.
Photo: Jeff Colt

It's also critical to know that the sheer number of pockets sewn onto each vest doesn't correlate to the score it received. While the contenders for our awards all had in the ballpark of 10 pockets, we recognized these packs for the usefulness and design of these pockets. The Bryce XT, for instance, has ten pockets in contrast to the six pockets of the Swiftland Hydro, yet we granted them the same score, as the Switfland had easy-to-use pockets that took very little tinkering. Every pocket on the Bryce seemed to have an overly complex closure — be it zipper, magnet, or elastic cord — they overthought and over-designed the pockets, leaving few easy access options.

Pockets make the vest, as they impact comfort, access to gear...
Pockets make the vest, as they impact comfort, access to gear, volume, hydration system, and the feature set. We love that the front kangaroo pockets on the Sense Ultra can hold almost everything we need while running, excluding variables light nightfall and temperature swings.
Photo: Jeff Colt

All things considered, we feel like ample storage, at least one secure zippered pocket for small, easily lost items, and a design that places several pockets within reach while moving is essential. The Pinnacle 12 and ADV Skin 12 nailed all of these points excellently with a wide variety of pocket sizes, shapes, and volume, keeping everything within easy reach.

The ADV 12 skin pockets hold everything and see-through mesh makes...
The ADV 12 skin pockets hold everything and see-through mesh makes it easier than ever to organize and pass through aid stations rapidly.
Photo: Jeff Colt


Conclusion


Hydration packs for running are one of the more "niche" categories that we review here at GearLab. There are a whole host of great packs on the market if you're looking for something to accompany you on long hikes and bike rides. This category is aimed at runners, and each pack keeps the specific needs of runners in mind throughout their design. We accept that runners might also like biking, climbing, skiing, and hiking, but all of these vests are designed to remediate the expected bouncing of water and gear that is inevitable to our running strides. They fit tight to the body, have less storage than an average daypack, and are generally more expensive, featuring a bunch of details that non-runners may find obsolete. All that being said: if long-distance running is calling your name, you're in the right place, and we have the gear to get you where you want to go. Short of giving you our phone numbers, we're here to help, so narrow down what you are in the market for and read through those in-depth reviews. We are confident we have a good solution for you.

Systems for travel in the backcountry have advanced dramatically...
Systems for travel in the backcountry have advanced dramatically, allowing a runner to cover huge distances in a day or two. At the center of this lightweight gear overhaul is the hydration pack for running.
Photo: Jeff Colt

Jeff Colt & Brian Martin